Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 8 December 2013 (Second Sunday of Advent)
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12
(Find the readings here.)
Isaiah spoke his hopeful words at a time of national crisis. The people of God were facing the possibility of destruction by Assyria, the world power of the day, and they were doing so under dithering leadership. The king, a descendent of King David, was supposed to stand in a special relationship with God and rule the people on God’s behalf, with wisdom and justice. The reality was a million miles from that. And so Isaiah paints for them a picture of the emergence of a new Davidic king – Jesse was David’s father – for whom the status of God’s anointed one would be more than theological legitimization of a political reality. This ruler would genuinely have the spirit of the Lord and be imbued with all the wisdom and strength of character needed to make the right decisions. And the result would be a just society where the voice of the poor and powerless would carry as much weight as everyone else’s. Such a society is so far from any present reality that the prophet can only describe it in utopian terms: wolves accepting hospitality from lambs without turning around and devouring them. Too good to be true? For now, yes, but this picture of a world in which the weak are not the prey of the strong and the innocent are not vulnerable shows us in what direction we should be headed as we await God’s future. It indicates the qualities of the kingdom which Jesus came to establish. In our own collective lives, do we advance or oppose its coming?
In the psalm we pray for and celebrate this messianic king, picking up the themes of justice, perpetual peace and a special regard for the powerless. But the psalm also picks up a theme from the conclusion of the prophecy – the inclusion of outsiders. It announces the fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham at the beginning of the story of the people of God: “in him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed.” The new order which is the establishment of the Kingdom of God is not a vindication of ‘us’ over against the excluded other. It is an inclusive vision. As in Isaiah’s vision, the old antagonisms are transcended.
Paul drives home this link between hope and an inclusive spirit. We are explicitly invited to find encouragement in the Old Testament readings and to base our hope on them. The endurance and hope inspired by the Scriptures are God-given, but so is the call to harmony. In Paul’s day, there was a strong potential for division within the people of God between Christians of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. In our own day the fault-lines lie elsewhere. The command is unambiguous: welcome one another as Christ welcomed you. If Jesus in his first coming established a beachhead for the kingdom of God, and if we look forward to the culmination of God’s purposes when the calf and lion cub graze together, then at the very least Christians should stop attacking each other now!
John the Baptist was also a prophet in uncertain and dangerous times. In his day, the people of God had lost political and economic sovereignty. Their palpable longing for a messianic king to fulfil prophecy is seen in their overwhelming response to John’s message, and their sense of alienation from God finds expression in a longing for cleansing from sin. When the religious elite want to join in, John castigates them. He is adamant that confidence in one’s religious identification and the performance of religious rituals is no substitute for genuine repentance. True repentance bears fruit in the way we live our lives. I’m so used to seeing the Pharisees as the ‘baddies’ in the Gospel stories, that I’m tempted to skip over this warning too quickly without letting the Pharisee within be challenged. Is my identification with the kingdom of God on my lips or in my actions?
The messianic kingdom is not a natural outgrowth of the kingdoms of this world. The present systems will not simply evolve over time into a just and peaceful world. The One whose coming John announced baptises with the Spirit AND with fire, and has the winnowing fan in his hand. The coming for which we look and long is accompanied by the shaking of the foundations. Could the world’s present turmoil give way to a more just order? I doubt it, yet I hope – even so, come Lord Jesus!